Basil Spence was born in Bombay, India but was sent back to Scotland to study. He attended George Watson's College in Edinburgh, then the architecture school of the Edinburgh College of Art, before completing his architectural studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London.
His first post was as an assistant in the London office of Sir Edwin Lutyens (whose work was to have a profound influence on Spence's style), where he worked on designs for the Viceroy's House in New Delhi, India. He subsequently joined the London office of Rowand Anderson & Paul, where he worked with Sir William Kininmonth, then returned to Edinburgh in 1930.
Spence served in the British Army from 1939 - 1945, reaching the rank of major.
During the war, Coventry's Anglican Cathedral had been almost completely destroyed during enemy bombing. In 1944, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott submitted a design proposal to rebuild the cathedral but this was rejected by the Royal Fine Arts Commission. In 1950, a competition was launched to find the most suitable design from a Commonwealth of Nations architect. Over 200 entries were received, but Spence's radical design was ultimately chosen. Work began in 1956 and the structure was completed in 1962. Spence was knighted in 1960 for his work at Coventry, and also served as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (1958-1960).
In the 1950s, Spence was consulted by Glasgow City Council to design part of an ambitious project in Hutchesontown that would see swathes of tenement slums demolished and high rise housing put up in their place. He was given Area C to plan and came up with 20 storey Queen Elizabeth Square flats at 2 Queen Elizabeth Square and 16-32 Queen Elizabeth Square. Brutalist masterpieces to some, concrete carbuncles to others. The experiment was a failure as damp and crime arose on the estate and it was demolished in 1993. Just 28 years after it was built in 1965.
He has recently been the subject of a BBC documentary, Rebuilding Basil Spence, which revises his place in 20th Century British architecture and asks why he has been long overlooked. And in 1993 Spence's Hutchesontown C complex was listed by the international conservation organisation DoCoMoMo as one of Scotland's sixty key monuments of the post-war years; ironically the same year as it was demolished.
A successful high rise that Basil Spence designed is the Knightsbridge Barracks in London. It was built in 1970 and at 29 storeys/90m tall, it was the tallest building Spence designed. It remains part of Londons skyline to this day.